Evil is probably too strong an adjective for Time Warner. The company is not, at least so far as has been documented, propping up despotic regimes in Third World countries, pumping radioactive waste into baby formula or systematically clubbing baby seals; it merely delivers some of the most mind-bendingly atrocious customer service known to humankind. Then again, you would probably be a jerk too if you had a near-monopoly on quasi-utilities like Internet and cable TV in large swaths of the country.
The thing is, one doesn't always have to just sit back and take it, as proved this week by a persistent — nay, courageous — Irving woman named Araceli King. On Tuesday she won a $229,500 judgment against Time Warner in a federal court in New York.
At issue wasn't Time Warner's generally terrible customer service, for which there is no legal recourse. Rather, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein took issue with the 163 robocalls the company made to King's cell phone seeking back payments from some dude named Luiz (probably "Luis," but that's how it's listed in Time Warner's records) Perez, 153 of them after she told customer service representatives in a seven-minute phone conversation that they had the wrong number. Those calls, he ruled, violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, which restricted the use of robocalls and instituted do-not-call lists. It allows $500 for each violation, triple that if the violation was "willful or knowing," hence the damages ($1,500 x 153 = $229,500)
Time Warner fought King's lawsuit, filed in March 2014, in the most Time Warner way possible. It argued, in a lengthy brief requesting dismissal of the case, that King consented to the calls as part of the contract she agreed to as a Time Warner customer; that 93 of the calls didn't count because King didn't pick up and no voice mail was left; and that Time Warner's "interactive voice response" system, which automatically calls customers to remind them of delinquent accounts, among other things, doesn't meet Congress' definition of an "automatic telephone dialing system" (i.e. "equipment which has the capacity (A) to store or produce telephone numbers to be called, using a random or sequential number generator; and (B) to dial such numbers.")
One by one, Hellerstein picked those arguments apart. While King may have consented to receive robocalls when she became a Time Warner customer, she revoked that consent when she told them to stop. And Congress made it illegal to make certain robocalls, regardless of whether they're answered. As for the legalistic claim that Time Warner's system doesn't qualify as an ATDS:
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TWC argues that its IVR system does not qualify as an ATDS because it did not generate numbers to dial at random or in sequence. Rather, it made a list of customers that met certain criteria—specifically customers who were behind on their bills—and dialed them. It argues that the list could just as easily have been created by a human. But TWC ignores the fact that the lists were not created by a human. In fact, it has not identified any human involvement at all in any stage of the customer selection, list compilation, or dialing processes. The method is fully automated from start to finish.
Hellerstein goes on to explain why, rather than just hit Time Warner with $500 per violation, he decided to triple the penalty. He concludes that the company "harrass[ed]" King and deems its claims that it didn't know that King had revoked her consent to be robo-called "incredible."
"A responsible business in TWC's position might have dispatched a live agent to reach out to Luiz Perez after the IVR failed to reach him the first several times," he writes. "Whether the agent's call were answered by Ms. King or her voice mail, the agent would quickly realize the mistake and fix the company's records so that the machine would not contact her anymore." The purpose of the penalty, then, is not just to compensate King for her troubles but to incentivize Time Warner and other companies to be more responsible when it comes to robo-calling.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.